This is the continuation of the ‘meeting a stranger on Instagram’ story. If you haven’t read it yet, I suggest you head over to this link. It’s not mandatory that you read it before this post, but it can give you loads of entertainment and suspense. 😀
I went to Vietnam to volunteer as an English teacher in Hanoi for two months. Through Workaway, I stumbled upon an organization called Mercury that works with volunteers from around the world to provide English education to the financially-challenged youth sector of Vietnam. In return for ~20 hours of classes per week, volunteers receive free food and accommodation as well as visa support for those staying for at least three months.
When I finally met Mechelle in Hanoi, I thanked her a million times. Even though she cringed every time I’d say she had saved me, I still said it nonetheless. She showed me around the neighborhood on my first day with Mercury. That same evening, we organized an international karaoke night with volunteers from Poland, Argentina, Spain, Estonia, the US, Ireland, Egypt, Vietnam, and the Philippines.
For the first time in my life, I rapped in front of my fellow volunteers – thanks to Mechelle for being persuasive! I felt so free. I I didn’t make a fool out of myself. Rather, I grabbed life by the horns and took myself less seriously.
When I volunteered for Mercury, I met some of the best people in my travels- an Estonian who’d been living as a nomad for three years, a Filipino who walked away from his deanship, a German who was taking a sabbatical in Asia, an American who drove a motorbike from the south of Vietnam to the north, a Hungarian law student who advocated volunteering, and an American family of five who decided pulling out their children of school to travel was the best decision they ever made thus far.
One of the things I looked forward to was our shared meals. It took me a few days to adjust to the late dinner schedule (~10 PM), but I realized it wasn’t so bad since my first class wasn’t until 8:30 AM and it was just downstairs. My fellow volunteers had to ride the motorbike every day.
In the morning, Mechelle, Lucky, and I would wake up early to eat breakfast together. It was a simple meal of Trung Nguyen instant coffee and banh mi (the Vietnamese take on the crusty French baguette and is filled with omelette, meat, cucumbers, carrots, onions, cilantro, and sweet chili sauce) spiced with our conversations about travel and happy thoughts. If there was one thing I missed the most, it would have to be this.
I looked for opportunities to spend time with one person at a time away from our usual bigger social groups, so I could know people better. The night I chatted with Sara (Ireland) as she cooked Swedish pancakes for us was one of the most hilarious. She would chide everyone (especially Mechelle) who insisted her pancakes were crepes. She also expressed disgust toward my idea of putting chili sauce on the first serving I tried.
In some classes, I worked with a fellow volunteer from Hungary. Her name is Monika. She went to Hanoi to do volunteer work during her school’s summer break. We fancied going to milk tea shops together to the detriment of her tummy. Did I mention she’s lactose intolerant? So, yeah, my bad. But she had lactase pills to save her.
As travelers, it’s okay to have some reservations about many things. We can’t accept or agree with everything that comes our way. But it’s a welcome relief to travel with people who share the same level of adventurousness as I do. My co-volunteer, Alka (Poland), was one of my favorite travel buddies, because she looked past what others would consider dirty, unkempt, and disorderly. We didn’t mind trying the local streetside drinks or the cheap cafe that affords a view of Hanoi’s streets where we could observe life unfolding by the minute.
When you’re traveling, it’s virtually impossible not to come across travelers who are polyglots (people who speak several languages). The moments when my heart jumped out of my chest were those when I met Jennifer (Ecuador), Jenny and Aldo (Mexico), and Martina and Max (Argentina) and spoke with them in Spanish. Jenny and Aldo share the same degree of love for Japan and speak basic Japanese, and Jenny is a Taylor Swift fan, too! I’m attracted to multilingual travelers because they seem to live in many different worlds. Even if we run out of things to talk about in English, we can bring the same things up in Spanish and we’ll be entertained forever.
My favorite part of our apartment was neither the bedroom nor the kitchen but the balcony. It was my breathing space for when I wanted to lull my thoughts by looking at the speeding motorbikes on the road. It was also where I was inspired by Ollie (Estonia) to contemplate going on a temple retreat in Thailand. I’ve always been interested in world religions and philosophies because for me they’re a profound way of understanding culture and the collective consciousness of a given society. I considered rebooking my flight to Canada to return to Thailand for a month-long temple retreat but quickly decided against it because of the unplanned expenses it would entail.
Instead, I resolved to focus my energy on exploring northern Vietnam. I spent a full weekend with Lucky and Julia (Germany) in Cat Ba, which is one of the most coveted islands in the Halong Bay region. We were the slowest of travelers. We just walked around the island, took a cruise ship, drank yogurt coffee and beer, and ate pizza.
Volunteering is not only for solo travelers or for couples. It can also be an enriching experience for families who wish to learn new skills outside of school while also deepening their relationships. The Becker family left the US to travel for at least 6 months – their first destination being Hanoi. Maureen and Jason (parents) pulled their children out of school to expand their experiences and travel the world together. Living with a family of volunteers was enlightening. Before I left the Philippines, I thought I would volunteer only with people my age, but it had been a welcome surprise to share more than a month with a traveling family. Since Maureen is a teacher, she “homeschools” her children on the road.
I met people who were vegetarian. Some others were gluten-sensitive so we couldn’t share our banh mi with them. And me? I eat everything but pork. Offer me chopped raw garlic, onions, or chili and I’ll thank you from the bottom of my heart. Eating together with people who had different needs and restrictions might sound challenging, but I found it quite entertaining. I was always surprised by the new things I learned as I shared meals with them.
Before heading to Vietnam to volunteer, I felt so excited (too excited, perhaps) of the possibility of living the dream of traveling the world. I was too optimistic, so to speak. I had my own version of reality in my head, which wasn’t so bad since that belief led me to start my journey in the first place.
I decided to travel long-term thinking I was fully-equipped to handle every situation that would come my way. But all of it was shattered. What I had in my head were mere illusions. I wasn’t the strong-willed, super adaptable, open-minded person that I thought I was. I learned that I was handicapped in so many ways.
I even suffered from dengue fever two weeks before I left Hanoi. It’s a disease that can be contracted by being bitten by a certain species of mosquito. Before you think it was unfortunate, let me tell you that it unexpectedly became an opportunity to experience love. Rosie (Vietnam) religiously made me hot lemon-ginger tea, Maureen and Jason offered to buy me medicines, Lucky and Mechelle bought me hot soups and fruits, Julia picked up some bread for me, and Phuoc (my Vietnamese teaching assistant) accompanied me to the public hospital three times until my blood profile returned to normal.
Very few of my friends got wind of me catching it. I hesitated to share it on social media not because it was a lowlight, but because I didn’t want to attract attention and consequently make people think Hanoi was a risky place to visit because it’s not. What happened to me was an isolated case. Undesirable though it was, I gained so many friends when I was weak. Let me add that public hospitals in Hanoi are a notch better and more orderly than the ones in Manila.
Volunteering taught me humility. I learned that there was still so much to learn about myself. My idea of who I was was stretched in various directions. I learned that I could share my bed with strangers and still sleep comfortably, that I could tolerate noise far longer than the limit I set for me, that there was magic in trusting others when I couldn’t trust myself.
Most of the discomfort was only bothersome because of unfamiliarity. Once I got the hang of all the novelty, they not only became bearable but also life-changing. I couldn’t imagine waking up one morning with no fellow travelers to share my coffee, my sandwich, or even the smog that danced lightly in Hanoi’s air.
The motorbike ride I took to reach the airport on the day I left was something I didn’t want to end in spite of an upcoming flight. For a split second, I wanted to go back to my apartment. After two months, I had to leave my friends, my students, and all the wonderful people I met on the road, yet I had to move on and continue my journey. We all have different trips to make, and I have to find comfort in this bittersweet reality. Nevertheless, I am hopeful that our paths will cross again somewhere in the world.
Interested in volunteering for Mercury to teach English to young Vietnamese students? Click here to know more about them and what they do.